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I had an interesting question. It is common knowledge that ragtime came about as a genre with Scott Joplin. However, I am curious if anyone has any information about Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 and any connection to the works of Scott Joplin, or perhaps any other examples of ragtime-esque pieces from before Joplin's time?

What's interesting to point out:

  • This sonata was written in 1822, five years before Beethoven's death. At this point Beethoven was functionally deaf and could not have heard this music from the local music scene
  • Joplin's first works were published in 1895. This puts the two at more than 70 years difference
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    Out of curiosity, how did this question come about? I only ask because I swear I've seen it on this site before, but I'm having trouble finding it.
    – Richard
    Dec 19, 2020 at 16:12
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    I’ve never heard this piece and am shocked at the amount of swing feel it has! This doesn’t resemble ragtime to me at all but it does have a bit of a fast Boogie Woogie feeling in my opinion, especially the chord syncopations in the right hand leading into the third 32nd notes of each grouping. Of course the harmonic and melodic elements are completely different. Still, saying Beethoven invented ragtime (or boogie woogie for that matter) is quite a stretch. Dec 19, 2020 at 18:55
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    Beethoven's deafness isn't relevant. He could experience new music by reading scores.
    – user9480
    Dec 19, 2020 at 23:47
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    There's a lot of responses to go over. @Peter perhaps I should've mentioned boogie-woogie instead of ragtime specifically, but this piece seems to be way ahead of it's time. This type of up-beat syncopated music I associate with the ragtime period. I'm not sure there are examples of earlier music of this style prior to the invention of ragtime Dec 20, 2020 at 1:55
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    Anyone who came upon op. 111 second movement would be stunned by what they heard and surely would invoke musical possibilities that could include the conception or formation of ragtime or boogie woogie. This is not to diminish the contribution of Scott Joplin to the development of ragtime and others for boogie woogie which is of course enormous.
    – Lolek
    Oct 27, 2021 at 19:06

5 Answers 5

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No, I think the similarity to ragtime is coincidental, and I believe the principal evidence is in the way Beethoven notated this passage.

Beethoven has notated this section of the piece in 12/32, which indicates a triple meter - 4 groups of 3 32nd notes.

Today, it is common for pieces with a swing feel to be notated with a triplet feel, but this is not the way Scott Joplin interpreted a swing feel. His sheet music uses mostly eighth notes and sixteenth notes. We know that Joplin performed his music with a light swing feel because he recorded piano rolls that we can still hear. It is nothing like the triplet-swing feel of jazz.

The syncopated rhythms of ragtime are what separated from other genres of music at the time, and Joplin learned them in Black clubs and saloons of the American South and Midwest that he performed in during his teens and twenties.

As friendly word of caution, I would generally advise against taking a small, uncharacteristic fragment of a composer's work and asserting - even in jest - that he "invented" a later genre of music. Scott Joplin was the first prominent Black American composer and his influence on the history of music cannot be overstated, so stating that a White composer actually invented his music 70 years earlier is really out-of-touch with current trends in music thought.

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    "The white racial frame of music theory". I suppose you actually CAN make everything about race. Dec 19, 2020 at 15:45
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    Joplin's music was very much rooted in the Common Practice tradition. He made a notable contribution to the ragtime genre. Because he was Black, his influence IS often overstated. The political reasons for this are understandable and even laudable, but it does him no ultimate service.
    – Laurence
    Dec 19, 2020 at 15:52
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    @LaurencePayne Joplin is using the tonal and formal language of European classical music, but the characteristics/innovations that separate ragtime from other previous styles are uniquely Black, and to ignore that fact marginalizes the importance of their influence.
    – Peter
    Dec 19, 2020 at 15:53
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    When I listened to Joplin piano rolls like Elite Syncopations and The Entertainer, I thought Joplin played ragtime completely straight. Granted, Joplin recorded his piano rolls late in his shortened lifetime, and his piano roll of his Magnetic Rag involves an intro with screwed-up rhythms and a curious lack of repeats (my speculation is that the piano roll makers had to edit the repeats out because they were so badly mangled).
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 19, 2020 at 16:21
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    I appreciate your analysis. I am not claiming that Beethoven invented the genre outright, but more so proposing (or perhaps picking at) the idea that this piece could've been the starting point from which Joplin developed the ragtime style. The two are not the same thing, hence "invented" is in quotation marks. Dekkadeci in the other comment noted that Joplin's ragtime was partially influence by Chopin's Butterfly Etude, which I also find interesting Dec 20, 2020 at 2:02
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As a single composition, probably not. No more than Beethoven invented the rumba-tango style with the third movement of his Piano Concerto #1. However, Scott Joplin had very good classical music training. He was a big fan of Wagner which led him to write both the words and lyrics to his opera Treemonisha.

As an aside, Joplin's father was a steel-driving man (like John Henry) so the father would be working on the railroad for six months each year (the company required six-month layoffs as steel-driving was physically exhausting), leaving Scott, his mother, and his sister at home (with no direct source of income.) Scott's mother made deal with a white family to be a cook, maid, nanny, and general helper in return for the family providing room, board, and teaching reading, math, and music to her kids. A local German emegré and music professor, Julius Weiss, taught Scott for free. He gave him a good German-Conservatory based music education. So Joplin was familiar with classical music literature. He, and the other early ragtime composers, considered themselves to be followers of the great classical tradition, especially as represented by Chopin.

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    I read one source that says that Joplin's ragtime was partially influenced by Chopin's G flat major "Butterfly" etude, especially its left hand. (Might be spurious since I've listened to ragtime that precedes Joplin's, and their left-hand textures are similar to his.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 19, 2020 at 16:16
  • "He, and the other early ragtime composers, considered themselves to be followers of the great classical tradition, especially as represented by Chopin" This is a very interesting point. From first listen I would have a hard time believing that ragtime was a descendant of the romantic period, but there is probably more to it than surface-level sound. I'll need to look at my Joplin scores more closely Dec 20, 2020 at 2:05
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    Does anyone have any citations to show that Joplin and his contemporaries had a special fondness for Chopin? It seems that a lot of people refer to Joplin as "the Chopin of the rag," but do we know any sources that show Joplin thought of himself this way?
    – Peter
    Dec 20, 2020 at 4:01
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It's not coincidental. A German Jew named Julius Weiss immigrated to the U.S. in 1870, he was a music teacher and professor. He brought with him all of the sheet music of the Classics, especially Beethoven. Beethoven wrote the Sonata No. 32 in the 1820s. It surely was included in Weiss's repertoire. Weiss moved to Texarkana on the border of Arkansas and East Texas. He spent several years schooling Scott Joplin in the classics. Joplin thus became familiar with Sonata No. 32 and his music was heavily influenced by it. Beethoven's boogie woogie thus became Joplin's boogie woogie through the bridge of Julius Weiss. Beethoven's Sonata 32 did not fall into a black hole only to have boogie woogie coincidentally appear 70 years later. Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag shows the unmistakable influence of Sonata No. 32. It is a direct bridge from Beethoven to Weiss to Joplin. Joplin himself considered boogie woogie, or ragtime, to be a form of classical music.

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  • This needs documentation.
    – Aaron
    Dec 23, 2022 at 20:40
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    The date of the sonata is well known as a historical fact. Julius Weiss's emigration to the US around 1870 is a historical fact. The fact that he tutored Scott Joplin in Beethoven and the classics is accepted among music historians. What aspect are you suggesting needs documentation?
    – user89840
    Dec 25, 2022 at 2:49
  • "It surely was included in Weiss's repertoire." (speculative) "Joplin thus became familiar with Sonata No. 32, and his music was heavily influenced by it." (assumption without evidence) "Beethoven's boogie woogie thus became Joplin's boogie woogie." (this conclusion is unsupported) Furthermore, Joplin never heard of "boogie woogie", which was a later style.
    – Aaron
    Dec 25, 2022 at 2:54
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    Joplin may not have used the term boogie-woogie, but today we call his music boogie woogie or Ragtime. Whatever one calls it, it's the same style of music as Sonata No. 32. A listen to both would logically seem to show that the one is influenced by the other, given their similarities. It is speculative that Sonata No. 32 was among the Beethoven works that Weiss taught to Joplin. We do know Weiss was Beethoven-heavy. Of course there is an element of speculation in that I wasn't present at those sessions. But we do know that Weiss taught Beethoven to Joplin and that Joplin studied with Weiss for
    – user89840
    Dec 25, 2022 at 23:36
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    It makes at least as much sense than that Beethoven happened to write this music, Weiss happened to teach Beethoven to Joplin, and Joplin happened to write the same style of music, which disappeared into a black hole for 70 years and then coincidentally reappeared. That conventional wisdom is certainly speculative.
    – user89840
    Dec 25, 2022 at 23:39
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It's worth noting that Beethoven's late piano sonatas did not become part of the public repertoire of pianists until roughly 1860 and were not widely played and understood until the 1920s and 30s. They were first fully recorded (by Schnabel) in the 1930s. That's not to say that Weiss didn't own a score and play Op. 111 privately or with students. Late Beethoven was considered too esoteric and difficult for public performance for a long time. But scores of his works were widely owned and recognized in 19th-century German-speaking culture.

The second thing to remember is that ragtime first, then jazz, were created by African-American musicians from a fusion of multiple influences. Historians and marketing people have sometimes created overly rigid categories that don't capture the reality of music in the Americas. Classical training and knowledge were common among pianists of all backgrounds and used as one part of their language, as I can confirm myself. And jazz did not become a completely separate genre until the 1930s and 40s, when it fully came into its own, distinct from both classical and popular music.

A third thing to keep in mind is that Jewish immigrants were usually less prejudiced and would have had little or no reservation in teaching all kinds of material to a piano student of any race. That this was an issue in the post-Civil War South shouldn't require comment, but take a look at what Dvořák wrote about American music in the 1890s when he visited the US.

While the Op. 111/2nd movement is unlikely to be "the" or even a source of ragtime or boogie-woogie, it is much more likely that both allude to a common genre, the marching band and its relative, the waltz, the most common kind of syncopated style in nineteenth-century music and one source of syncopation in popular music. And marches do occur in Beethoven in many places (Op. 101/2 (scherzo, alla marcia), more famously in the Third Symphony and Ninth Symphony, with the miniature oompa band in the final movement.

I'm listening to Op. 111 right now, and I've played it in the past -- Beethoven arrives at something like boogie-woogie by progressively more subdivisions and syncopation that starts with something like a minuet, then a waltz or a scherzo (in 3/4, but faster still with only one real beat: ONE-two-three). And while most often 2/2 or 4/4, march time can be 6/8, a spritely relative to the waltz 3/4 -- Joplin would certainly been familiar with these styles and genres. Beethoven's triple 12/32 time is a subdivision of 6x2/8x2x2 (with the extra 2s reflecting Beethoven's finer and finer subdivisions in the sequence of variations, and you can factor this signature more completely).

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I sort of understand why the Beethoven piece might be compared to ragtime, but it doesn't really sound like ragtime, and the origin of ragtime doesn't seem to be in dispute. In terms of both piano texture and actual form, ragtime is a direct extension of the march, but with syncopation added, whose syncopation origin is found in African music as transported to America through the slave trade. The piano texture of ragtime is identical from piano marches of the same time period. Ragtime pieces also follow the basic march dance forms being ternary, and using a trio with da capo repeat, or a rondo type of alternating sections. Simply put, ragtime is a late 19th century piano march played with a "ragged" syncopated rhythm, with a moderately slow march tempo.

This question reminds me of case with an 18th century piece by Michel Corrette called Naval Battle for Harpsichord, which uses tone clusters to mimic exploding bombs. I would not try to draw a link between that and something like tone clusters used by Henry Cowell. They aren't being used the same way, they don't have the same musical meaning. And there just is no line of musical development linking the two in historical steps.

In a similar way the Beethoven piece uses syncopation, but does not do anything else like ragtime. Joplin was not building off of something in op. 111 to develop ragtime. Instead he was clearly developing a new rhythmic style that built directly off of piano marches of the time.

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